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Who will govern Kirkuk?

As Baghdad appointed a temporary governor after reimposing its authority in Kirkuk, three main proposals are available to find a long-term governing solution for the coveted city.

Although Baghdad imposed its authority on Kirkuk on Oct. 16 and appointed a new temporary governor, Kurds still hope to reach an agreement with Baghdad that will allow them to appoint a Kurdish governor in the disputed province between Baghdad and Erbil. In the latest development, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) nominated a Kurdish candidate (the former head of the provincial council, Rizgar Ali) on Nov. 12, and demanded that the provincial council hold a meeting to vote on the new governor.

The Kurds' proposal is one of several options on the table.

The first option is appointing a military governor. Some members of the Arab and Turkmen communities in Kirkuk proposed this before and after the Kurdish referendum. For Kurds, appointing a military governor, even if for a while, means Kirkuk’s restoration to the pre-2003 era and the reminder of bitter memories when the Kurds were the most aggrieved and affected group in the city. The central government may be powerful enough to hold Kirkuk for now, but appointing a military governor would push the Kurds to one side, which is likely to prove both provocative and unsustainable. Election results indicate that the Kurds are larger than other groups in the province, although there has been no official and reliable census for some time.

Kurds will reassert their claim on Kirkuk at the first available opportunity — both for the symbolic reason that many Kurds regard Kirkuk as their "Jerusalem," and for the economic reason that control of Kirkuk’s oil would play a big role in any future Kurdish independence bid. The upshot is that Kirkuk was and remains a "disputed territory"; as a US State Department statement said Oct. 20, "The reassertion of federal authority over disputed areas in no way changes their status — they remain disputed until their status is resolved in accordance with the Iraqi constitution." 

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi might decide against this option if he takes into account that, in the post-Islamic State period, the Arab-Kurdish conflict over Kirkuk and other disputed territories could be the biggest potential threat to stability in Iraq. In addition, such a move could be both ineffective and dangerous, for it has a great potential for escalating into ethnic violence.

The second option is to hold provincial elections in a few months, which would lead to a new council and a new government. Kirkuk province is the only province that has had only one election since 2005; the Kirkuk provincial council is now the longest-serving such council in Iraq. In 2005, 41 members were elected in a public election for the council: The Kurdish Brotherhood List has 26 members, while there are nine Turkmens and six Arabs. Other provinces (apart from the provinces forming the Kurdistan Region) held elections in 2005, 2009 and 2013. Conducting only one election within 12 years in Kirkuk province is a clear indication of the depth of disputes among the three main ethnic groups regarding Kirkuk's governance.

The current situation in Kirkuk is a good opportunity for holding a new provincial council within a few months. A member of the Kurdish provincial council told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that “the provincial council is a tired council, let a new council come with new members.” Holding a provincial election, however, needs the consent of the main three groups of Kirkuk. Attempts to hold provincial elections in 2009 and 2013 failed partly because, in the view of the Arabs and Turkmens, the Kurds would win any election thanks to the process of Kurdification since 2003. The Kurds deny this allegation of Kurdification. But if Baghdad were to attempt to hold a provincial election to form a new council and then a new governor, it would need to reach an agreement between the three main groups in Kirkuk, which is unlikely to happen.

The third option is to renew the current council and push it to appoint a new governor. Although Turkmens and the PUK once supported the dismissal of the council, both now favor the council's renewal. Before the Kurdish referendum, the Iraqi Turkmen members of parliament had even launched a petition calling for the dissolution of Kirkuk’s provincial council and collected 74 signatures of members of parliament for that purpose. Similarly, Bafel Talabani, a PUK member and son of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (who died last month), addressed the people of Kurdistan on Oct. 12, suggesting the dissolution of the Kirkuk provincial council and the removal of the governor, if needed.

After the federal takeover of Kirkuk, 15 to 16 members of the provincial council from the Kurdish Brotherhood list left for Erbil, changing the balance of power on the council. The current situation and the absence of these members have put the Kurds in a weak position. If there were to be an election for a new council, the Turkmens likely would go from being the second strongest list in the province to the third; Turkmens are overrepresented on the council as a result of a low Arab turnout in the 2005 election.

Bafel Talabani’s statement, on the other hand, had much to do with rivalry between between the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Kirkuk and internecine squabbles within PUK wings. His wing has now struck against the KDP and his opponents within the PUK. For example, the KDP, which has held sway in Erbil, is the Kurdish party that has been hurt the most by the recent events in Kirkuk and other disputed territories. The governor of Kirkuk who was removed, Najmaddin Karim, is a Bafel Talabani rival in the PUK. In an interview with Bloomberg commenting on the recent events of Kirkuk, Karim said, "The day before the attack, Bafel, Talabani's nephew Lahur and his older brother Araz came to Kirkuk and met with [Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander] Qasem Soleimani's representative there. He gave an ultimatum, 'You either give up your positions or we will attack you.’" Thus, by weakening the position of the KDP in Kirkuk and removing Karim, who is accused by some PUK members of being pro-KDP, Bafel Talabani and his cousins may have achieved their goals and lost interest in dissolving the council. As for the Arabs, they seem comfortable to maintain the current status quo, as the Arab who was Kirkuk's deputy governor, Rakan Saeed al-Jobouri, now acts as the province's governor.

There also are legal problems to deal with. According to Rebwar Talabani, head of the Kirkuk provincial council, "There is no legal or constitutional article that allows dissolving the provincial council because the council operates under Bremer's Law 71, which is the highest authority." Thus, due to both political and legal obstructions, Prime Minister Abadi may avoid resorting to this option too.

To conclude, the current situation presents both risk and opportunity for Abadi. The risk is taking further escalatory actions and the opportunity is to put an end to the policy of imposing a fait accompli in Kirkuk and instead try to find a solution with regard to the future of the province under Article 140 of the constitution.

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